Having been part of a household observing the two holidays for 14 years or so, not to mention my own experiences as a kid with them, I have some observations. This is also informed by my experiences with my friends, my church community, and American culture in general. There are lots of variations but some themes emerge.
In general, on Mother’s Day, we do activities to “give mom a break” from the stereotypical jobs that mom does. We take her to dinner or someone else makes dinner. Someone besides mom does house cleaning and the dishes. We may even ask her if there is “something fun” she wants to do. And our language reflects recognition of the work that she does for the kids and family that doesn’t always get recognized. We honor her by excusing her from her chores.
In general, on father’s day, we ask dad what sort of family activities he would like to do. No one offers to do the stereotypically dad jobs (mowing the yard, car maintenance, clean the garage, etc.) We might ask him what he wants for dinner but rarely do we go out to dinner. (Even restaurants have caught on to this.) Our language reflects that this day is a chance for dad to “actually be a dad” and not have to do all those “dad jobs” but instead he can “play with the kids.” We honor him by giving him family time.
Mom’s chores and work are integral to the family.
Dad’s chores and work are external to the family.
Mom’s role is essential and has to be done every day even if she doesn’t do it.
Dad’s work can all be put off for a day.
Mom gets a break from “the family” (by which we really just mean her work) for her day.
Dad gets to play and have fun with the family on his day, since he doesn’t usually get to.
On Mother’s Day, we recognize “all the mom’s in our life” including those moms “that had to also be dad’s.”
On father’s day, we recognize that not all father’s are positive memories in our lives and the day may be troubling for some.
Most of these things are stereotypes and/or vestiges of heteronormative post-WWII culture. Where mom “is” the family and dad is the support of the family.
This is becoming increasingly challenging for families that don’t fit this. Some of my friends don’t fit this and we have discussed this at times. Maybe dad is a stay at home dad and packs the lunches and drives kids to soccer practice while mom works 60 hour weeks. Or maybe there are two moms, two dads, or two gender-non-conforming parents trying to navigate these gendered norms. Or maybe dad is a single-dad playing both roles. Maybe mom is abusive.
Besides their two very different origins, I think it is important to recognize the embedded cultural assumptions of how these two holidays are practiced. Practices based on two relatively-fixed (or at least slow to change) parental archetypes of the post-war mid-20th century. However, maybe dad wants flowers and maybe mom wants a necktie. Or maybe both parents just want some time to play with their kids. And maybe they hope that at least once a year their kids will recognize their contributions in some way.
Ask your parent figures, at least once a year, on whatever day you feel comfortable with, what you can do to recognize the contributions they have made in your life both seen and unseen. They will appreciate it. Especially if you recognize it in whatever way they want it recognized. And mom, dad, don’t be afraid to share the recognition you want.
(I find it odd that my iPad autocorrects Mother’s Day to be capitalized but not father’s day.)